Blog 98 13/06/2020 A LITERARY WORLD: An Interview with Helen Hollick

Posted in on 13 June, 2020 in News


An Interview with Helen Hollick

Over the next few weeks, I will be presenting a series of guest interviews with people who many of my readers and writer friends will know, not only because they are accomplished award-winning authors in their own right, but because they have tirelessly given so much of themselves to help and promote other authors. The first of this talented and energetic group of writers is Helen Hollick, who now lives in an eighteenth century farmhouse enjoying the rural tranquillity of North Devon, England. She is also someone I have known since I began my writing career a few years ago now. We belonged to a stable of authors who have all been there for each other through thick and thin, and in a world where professional friendships come and go, I am happy to say we are all still there to support each other even after all this time. Many of you will also know Helen because she runs the Discovering Diamonds Historical Fiction Review Blog. So without more ado, pour yourselves a glass of wine, make yourself comfortable and immerse yourself in Helen’s literary career.

Welcome to A Literary World, Helen. Tell us about your background? When did you decide to become an author?

I decided that I wanted to write about fifty-five years ago – I was twelve! You see, I desperately wanted a pony but we couldn’t afford one. So I invented one and wrote about our adventures together. You can achieve anything, go anywhere in the world of story. From ponies I moved to fantasy and science fiction in my teens, then, in my early twenties I discovered historical fiction and started writing what would eventually become my Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy. A week after my fortieth birthday I was picked up by Random House UK and became a published author. I went ‘indie’ in 2006/7.

I have to confess that my schooldays were not very encouraging for my ambition to be a ‘proper writer’… I thought, back then, that writers were clever people who went to university and had literary degrees and such, I only had a Secondary School education (lower grade basically – I failed the 11 plus – this was in the days before Comprehensive Equal Opportunity Education!) I left school at sixteen with moderate grades for English, and my careers talk was less than useless. I had decided to become a journalist (actually, a stupid idea as I was very shy and hated talking to people!) but that is what I told school. Scathingly, I received the retort, “Don’t be silly, Helen, you can’t type!” No mention of my ability (or not) to write. Here we are, all these years later, I’ve several novels and short stories written – and do you know what? I still can’t type!

What are your novels about and where are they set?

My ‘straight’ historical fiction novels cover the late fifth / early sixth century and eleventh century Britain/England. My Arthurian Trilogy is set in post-Roman/early Saxon era and is my version of the what might have happened story of King Arthur – without Lancelot, Merlin, the Holy Grail or any of the Medieval tales. My Arthur is a warlord: ‘the boy who became the man, who became the king, who became the legend.’ For the eleventh century I wrote about Queen Emma, who was married first to Aethelred ‘The Unready’, and then King Cnut (Canute). Her son was Edward the Confessor, so my other novel is the story of events that led to the Battle Of Hastings in 1066. In addition to these, I have a series of nautical adventures that are part fantasy – pirate tales set in the early 1700s. If you liked the first Pirates Of The Caribbean movie, you’ll enjoy the Sea Witch Voyages. I have also written two non-fiction books, one about pirates and one about smuggling.

What sort of research did the stories require?

For the Arthurian Trilogy, I researched Roman Britain and early Saxon England; what intrigues me, all these years later, is how much more we know of the fourth, fifth and sixth centuries… although there is still no proof that there ever actually was an Arthur! I also researched the eleventh century and 1066 in particular. My idea was to write the events of that famous battle from the English point of view, because back in the pre-2000s most of the history books started with the Norman Conquest and dismissed King Harold II as incompetent (and perpetuated the story of the arrow in the eye – which has now been shown to be just that, a story. In fact, Harold was hacked to death by four of Duke William’s men). I wanted to redress the balance – starting with the fact that Duke William had no right to the English throne whatsoever.

For my Sea Witch Voyages, I have never set foot aboard anything larger than a rowing boat (discounting HMS Victory and the Cutty Sark!) so I have undertaken a lot of research about sailing tall ships and pirates.

Are the characters based on real people?

You mean my made-up characters aren’t real? *laugh!*

My Queen Emma and King Harold II novels are mostly ‘real people’ with invented characters interspersed between the facts to make a coherent story. For the Sea Witch Voyages it is the other way round, mostly imagined characters with a few real people thrown in to add the sense of reality. I have Governor Woodes Rogers of the Bahamas, for instance, Blackbeard, Henry Jennings, Charles Vane, Calico Jack Rackham and Anne Bonny and Mary Read… all adventuring alongside my pirate captain, Jesamiah Acorne.

I ‘met’ him on a Dorset beach one drizzly October afternoon, but I must add, as with most authors, to me he is very, very real!

Do you think fiction helps us understand the past?

Short answer: definitely! A good novel set anywhere, any time in the past can lead to wanting to find out more: if I had not read Mary Stewart’s Crystal Cave and Hollow Hills, I might not have become interested in King Arthur and Roman Britain. If I had not enjoyed Pirates Of The Caribbean, I might not have wanted to know more about the real pirates…

What do you think is the secret to writing a good story? Are there any?

No secret really, a good story is a good story, a good writer is a good writer. What can make a difference between a really good story and a poor one, though, particularly where indie/self-published writers are concerned, is the quality of editing. Too many novels are spoilt (even ruined) by poor quality – or even total lack of – editing. Not just checking the correct spelling and punctuation, but a good editor will pick up on continuity errors, clumsy sentences, poor structure. A good editor is essential to end up with a good book. Ditto for the cover. So many self-published authors settle for something drawn by a family member or friend. Yes, maybe a pretty picture, but the quality is so often very poor. Do yourself and your hard work proud – use a professional editor and a professional cover designer. Yes, both cost money, but isn’t your writing worth the expense? Or are you really happy with third/fourth best?

When you’re not writing, what do you like to do to chill out?

We live on a thirteen-ace farm in North Devon, England, with a variety of animals, so I’m usually looking after my hens, gardening or with the horses. My daughter (who lives on the farm with her husband) is a semi-professional showjumper, so I often help with her training.

Who are your favourite authors?

I’m going to go for Indie authors, as we have the disadvantage of not having the Big Publishing Marketing Machines behind us. The ones I would automatically read their next book to be published without question are: Annie Whitehead, Alison Morton, Anna Belfrage, Susan Grossey, Lucienne Boyce, Cryssa Bazos and Debbie Young (and yours Kathryn!)

Favourite painter?

I’m not really ‘into’ art but I’d pounce on a Munnings if ever I could afford one (he paints horses).

Beryl Riley Smith on Snowflake by Alfred James Munnings

Favourite piece of music?

At the moment I’m into The Piano Guys, and Queen (OK, I know they’ve been around for ages…) especially the beautiful, haunting Who Wants To Live Forever?

What’s next for you?

More Sea Witch Voyages

Excerpt from … Sea Witch: The First Voyage Of Captain Jesamiah Acorne

Stranded in Cape Town, the pirate, Jesamiah Acorne, had been saved from certain death by Tiola, a healer, midwife – and white witch, with the ability to speak into his mind. He loved her beyond his own life – but his other love, the sea, was calling to him…

Puffing air through his cheeks, Jesamiah again glanced up at the window to their room. The shutters were closed. Tiola might still be at that birthing, although she had expected to return before midnight.

How to tell her?

~ If you stand here much longer, my luvver, you will find lichen growing on your boots come morning. ~ Tiola’s voice, clear and resonant, sounded in his thoughts.

He yelped, spun around, his hand automatically going to his cutlass. “Hell’s bits, woman, do not come up behind me like that! You nigh on frightened the life out of me!” He rammed the cutlass back into its scabbard and scowled. “I have only been here a few minutes.”

“Over an hour. I have been watching you.” She spoke aloud this time, a soft smile on her face. It was useful to be able to put words directly into his mind like a lover’s secretive and intimate touch. “What’s wrong?” Sensing his brooding disquiet, she slid her arms around his waist. His breath smelt of rum, his clothes of tobacco smoke.

Pulling her close into the warmth of his coat, Jesamiah said nothing, held her, his chin resting on her head. He might have guessed she would know.

“I think I have done something foolish, sweetheart,” he admitted after a moment of quiet. “Well, damned stupid, actually.”

“You lost at cards? You have gambled away your entire fortune?”

“No love, the fortune is safe.” Who gave a damn about fortunes? Where he came from there was always another. On impulse he took her hand, started walking. “Come with me, I cannot tell you here. Not like this.”

On occasion Tiola regretted not having the ability to eavesdrop on another’s thoughts, but sly intrusion was not permitted. With one of her own kind, communicating by thought alone was natural and usual, but there were few, now, who held the Craft. She smiled to herself as they walked. She often knew what Jesamiah was thinking anyway. It did not always require skill: the lust in his eye and the bulge in his breeches anyone could interpret!

His fingers locked around hers, he said nothing. He walked her to the harbour. A sickle moon rode between the rushing clouds; the wind stinging their faces made their eyes water. He took her onto the jetty near the tree-lined canal, stood holding her close, gazing at the vessels moving restlessly against the restraint of their anchors. A brig, a sloop and two Dutch East Indiamen. The air was heavy with the smell of the sea, the aroma of wet canvas and fresh tar, the odour of decaying seaweed and rotting fish.

“You are missing the sea, aren’t you?” Tiola said, nestling deeper into his warmth. “It calls to you, a lost child whimpering for its mother.”

He did not have the courage to answer immediately but his fingers tightened around hers. “I come down here most nights to see what ships are at anchor. Who is here.”

“Watching for Rue and the Inheritance?”

“Not really.” Jesamiah sighed – there was no headway in lies. “Aye. Watching for Rue, hoping he might one day pass by.” He pointed to a dark-hulled sloop anchored to the edge of all the others. “That one is a pirate craft.”

“How can you tell?” She peered up at him, at the wistful longing etched in his face, aching in his voice. “Looks the same as any ship to me.”

“Boat. She ain’t a ship.”

“There is a difference?” Tiola frowned at him, astonished.

Giving her a quick, affectionate kiss, Jesamiah answered, “As a rough rule any vessel that don’t have three masts is a boat.”

Tiola asked again when he said nothing more. “So? How do you know that boat is a pirate?”

He shrugged. To him it was obvious. “Small things, details. The name across her stern has been re-painted, her anchor cable is rotten. Few merchant captains allow slovenliness. Pirates are not concerned if cordage and cables rot, we can always get more.”

She noted the “we”.

“See her sails? Not neatly furled, are they? Decks are probably a disgrace, too. I’d wager her hull is full of teredo worm, most of the planking eaten away as they bore inward. Her crew’s here to find a replacement vessel.”

Tiola tugged playfully at his short beard, laughed. “The rest I grant you have deduced from experience, but how can you possibly know they are looking for another boat?”

He chuckled, lifted her hand and kissed each individual finger. “I don’t, not for certain; it’s what I would do were she mine.”

“I suppose you would commandeer one of the merchantmen?”

“Good grief, sweetheart, no! Far too big! The best pirate craft are fast and manoeuvrable, shallow on the draught. The brig, for instance, or the three-masted, square-rigged warped alongside the far jetty.”

“The ship – she has three masts, that makes her a ship? The one with the bosomed lady as a figurehead?”

“Aye. Grand, ain’t she?”

Tiola was uncertain whether he referred to the ship or the figurehead with its bold, bare chest.

“Ain’t she?” he queried again, giving Tiola a nudge with his elbow.

“Ais.” She was.

“She’s mine.” There. He had said it.


Quickly he said, “All above board, all legal. I’ll have her papers signed to me by noon on the morrow.” He glanced up at the sky to where the moon sailed, corrected himself. “Noon today.”

“You bought her?” A chill in her tone as iced as the blowing wind.

“Er, no. I won her. Playing cards.”

Suddenly wary, angry, Tiola released her hold of him. “Against whom?”

“Does it matter? Is it relevant?” This was not going well.

To stop herself from slapping him, Tiola moved further away. Did it matter? No, it did not. He had a ship, he wanted to go back to sea. He had every right to do as he pleased. Furious, she retorted, “Yes, it bloody does matter!”

When in the wrong, shout. Lose your temper. Jesamiah shouted back at her. “Stefan van bloody Overstratten, if you must know!”

“The stars! You can be such an idiot at times, Jesamiah!”

“What? Me? He wanted to raise the stakes, not me! Not my fault if he is as useless at cards as he is at everything else!”

“He is not useless at cards; he is an excellent player. You think of him as a dull-witted fop because that is how you want to see him, but he is not. He is a clever man, one of the most competent and agile-minded in Cape Town.” Her agitation was rising. “He is setting a trap, Jesamiah, a trap which will end with a noose around your neck – and you have stupidly stepped right into it! Do you seriously think he will stand aside and let you take his ship?”

No, he did not think that. He knew van Overstratten had deliberately let him win. The Dutchman had known the pirate in him would not resist the challenge of setting sail. Jesamiah would never have left Cape Town had he lost, not on the back of a mere threat – but the lure of a beautiful ship? Tiola was right. Van Overstratten was a clever man.

“Traps are only traps when you do not know they are there, Tiola.”

“He will not honour a game of cards, nor will he hand papers over to you.”

Jesamiah was well aware van Overstratten would not honour any of it. He had no proof of his winnings, no witnesses. Even if he did, who would believe him, a pirate, over the word of a respected and wealthy merchant? Opening his mouth to shout at her, to complain that she was being unreasonable, he shut it abruptly, spread his hands, tried again – he swallowed, took another breath and said quietly, “I do not need papers, sweetheart. I’ve never had any before.”

Tiola stared at him, disappointment and despair clouding her face. She turned on her heel and walked away without looking back.

© Helen Hollick

It’s been a pleasure to have you with us, Helen, and I have to agree with you on the paintings by Munnings. A wonderful painter of horses. On behalf of my readers, I wish you continued success with your work.

Website: Amazon Author Page (Universal Link)

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